The Hornets are more than just LaMelo Ball. The no. 3 pick in the 2020 draft has lived up to the hype during the first few weeks of the season, averaging 12.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 1.6 steals in only 25.3 minutes per game. But Charlotte is 6-5, including a 109-88 victory over New York on Monday, because its prized rookie is playing on a balanced roster that includes a resurgent Gordon Hayward and a pair of skilled and athletic forwards in P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges. The Hornets’ days of being one of the most anonymous franchises in the NBA are over. This is a fun team with star power and room to grow.
Hayward, whom they signed to a four-year, $120 million contract in the offseason, has been just as important an addition as LaMelo. The size of the deal raised eyebrows around the league after his three star-crossed seasons in Boston, where he couldn’t stay healthy or mesh with the team’s young talent. But he’s looking like the All-Star that he was in Utah now that he’s once again being given the keys to an offense. Hayward is averaging a career-high 22.5 points on 50.3 percent shooting while chipping in 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.4 steals per game.
It doesn’t seem like a fluke, either. Hayward has a bigger role on offense than he would have had if he stayed in Boston, but he’s not dominating the ball and posting unsustainable shooting percentages on difficult shots. Versatility always has been the strongest part of his game. He’s sliding comfortably between playing on and off the ball, attacking out of the pick-and-roll, knocking down spot-up shots, and getting out in transition. It’s hard to stop a 6-foot-7 player who can score in so many different ways.
Hayward has been the perfect complement to LaMelo, who has started the season coming off the bench. While the youngest Ball brother is already the most high-profile player on the Hornets, playing with Hayward means that he doesn’t have the burden of carrying the offense or being the opposing defense’s top priority as a rookie. He can play free when he comes in, moving the ball and setting up his teammates without needing to force too many shots. The two already have intriguing chemistry together. Look at all the ways LaMelo found Hayward against the Knicks:
LaMelo has been exactly as advertised in his first 11 games in the NBA. He’s a bigger (6-foot-8 and 180 pounds) and more aggressive point guard than Lonzo, constantly attacking the defense. He just makes things happen, whether it’s clearing the defensive glass and starting the fast break or getting into the lane and finding teammates all over the floor. Maybe the most impressive part of Ball’s start is that he’s pushing the envelope without making too many mistakes. He has an assist-to-turnover ratio (3-to-1) of a reliable veteran floor general, not a free-wheeling 19-year-old.
The big thing to watch with LaMelo is his offensive efficiency. He’s shooting only 41.3 percent from the floor, and his 3-point shooting (35.3 percent on 4.6 attempts per game) has been keeping him afloat despite his unorthodox form. LaMelo isn’t an elite athlete and can struggle to finish in traffic. He doesn’t always seem to have a plan when he gets to the rim:
He threatens the defense more as a playmaker than a scorer at this stage of his career. That’s why having reliable offensive threats around him is so important. One of the keys to Charlotte’s early success has been the growth of Bridges, a third-year reserve who comes into the game with LaMelo and helps change the energy on the floor. Bridges is an athletic 6-foot-6 forward who can dunk on anyone, stretch the defense (42.5 percent from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game), and rebound (5.6 per game) while defending on the perimeter and at the rim (0.7 steals and 1.2 blocks per game). His ability to impact the game in so many different areas is why he has the best net rating (plus-7.3 in 280 minutes) of any player in the Hornets’ rotation this season.
Charlotte coach James Borrego is still figuring out his new roster. The play of LaMelo and Bridges off the bench has helped them to a winning record even though their starting lineup of Hayward, Washington, Terry Rozier, Devonte’ Graham, and Bismack Biyombo has a net rating of minus-15.9 in 104 minutes. The fit among that unit has not been very clean. Graham has struggled after a breakout sophomore season now that he’s no longer dominating the ball, while Biyombo has not been able to successfully replace Cody Zeller, who broke his hand on Opening Night.
There are a couple of easy adjustments that Borrego could make. Moving LaMelo into the starting lineup would break up the undersized backcourt of Graham and Rozier, both of whom are only 6-foot-1. Rozier has been an elite 3-point shooter in two seasons in Charlotte (41.1 percent on 6.9 attempts per game) and makes sense as a ball hawk who defends opposing point guards and hunts for his own shot while playing with wings like LaMelo and Hayward who can run the offense. The switch could also benefit Graham by giving him a bigger role with more size around him coming off the bench. He has been much more effective this season when playing without Rozier (net rating of plus-16.2 in 133 minutes) than with him (minus-0.4 in 225 minutes).
A similar dynamic is happening up front, where Washington and Biyombo have not meshed. Washington is a decent outside shooter, but the 6-foot-7 forward is much better when he can play inside-out on offense, as opposed to playing exclusively as a stretch 4 next to Biyombo. Washington’s net rating goes from minus-12.7 in 116 minutes with Biyombo to plus-10.2 in 190 minutes without him. The Kentucky product, who is averaging 1.5 blocks per game, can survive on defense as a small-ball 5 while providing more offensive punch in that role.
The Hornets’ most intriguing lineup—Rozier, LaMelo, Hayward, Bridges, and Washington—has a net rating of plus-12.9 in only 20 minutes. Charlotte probably shouldn’t start the game that small, but it’s a potentially lethal closing group with the ability to stretch the defense and make plays from all five positions—without giving up too much on defense or on the glass.
For the first time in three years, Borrego has options. There’s no need for him to rush things and force LaMelo out of his comfort zone on the second unit too early in the season. But the Hornets have the right pieces around the potential Rookie of the Year to make a push when he’s ready.